Jim Cook, Creative Services Director, Clear Channel Communications, Atlanta, Georgia
by Jerry Vigil
The convergence of consolidation and technology is having a huge impact on radio production. That super producer on the east coast is now all of a sudden available to you on the west coast.
Wide area networks offer high quality production elements, free of charge and ready for you to download and use on your next promo. Tomorrow’s production departments are beginning to take shape, and Clear Channel’s Jim Cook is one of the people helping to shape them. In this month’s RAP Interview, Jim shares some insights into this new world of radio production and gives us a glimpse of how Clear Channel’s five Atlanta stations are taking care of business.
JV: Tell us about your background in radio.
Jim: It all began in the early seventies at a 5,000-watt radio station in Buffalo, New York where I was kind of a radio rat. I worked at WKBW and hung around over at WGR where I ran into a fellow named Randy Michaels, which began an association that has lasted since. From there, I went to college and worked in some television and radio stations around Rochester, New York where I went to school. I was a production assistant at the PBS television station in Rochester. After college, I ended up in Pennsylvania where I worked in radio as a morning jock at WCPA in Clearfield. Then I went to the Allentown market where I worked afternoon drive at WEEX. I finally found my way to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1979 and was jocking, and within about a year, I became the Program Director of Jet (WJET), which was a historic top forty radio station. It was one of the first top forty stations in the country. I programmed that and eventually became the VP of Programming for Jet Broadcasting over WHOT in Youngstown and Jet in Erie.
In the meantime, while I was there, I also did a number of other things including television. I went back into television and became an on-camera host, producer, and video editor. I created, produced, and hosted one of the first pre-MTV video television shows. I hosted everything from the monster movies on Saturday to the noon news. I also worked on my voice-over career and began doing voice-overs in New York for HBO and Cinemax. I did some acting and did television commercials for Pizza Hut as well.
Eventually, when I had done just about everything I felt I could do in Erie, Randy Michaels suggested I go to a radio station that was sort of at the forefront of a new kind of format called Young Country. So off to Minneapolis I go. Originally, I was one of the Program Director candidates, but Randy encouraged me to take a position as the production person, which is how I got into production in the early nineties. We created this new sound at WBOB 100 in Minneapolis, a sound that I think a lot of people were trying to replicate at a number of Young Country stations around the country.
After a couple of years there, I was ready to thaw out. Randy and Tom Owens, who was at the time Director of Programming for Jacor, asked me to come down to the facilities here in Atlanta to develop a production department. We were ready to go into the digital era and were preparing to move into new buildings and new studios. So, I came here in ’95 and worked with the Jacor boys doing a number of things. Along with developing the production department here, I was on the steering committee for the digital automation systems, which we ended up incorporating into all of our facilities. We chose the Prophet System. I also had a role in some small way and capacity on a national level for a number of other systems, which we have either incorporated or are in the process of developing for production. So, I’m managing the department here in Atlanta and acting as a coordinator for the distribution and sharing of production resources, primarily for the news/talk stations, and I continue to do voice-over work for World Championship Wrestling, CNN, and a couple of other things.
JV: Wow! You’ve been a busy guy! How did you like the video and television stuff as opposed to radio? Is that something you miss?
Jim: I enjoyed television in a completely different way than I enjoy radio. My heart has always been in radio, and television was just sort of another aspect or extension of my joy of the audio setting. When I produce, I’m producing to a picture in my head. So actually doing it with real pictures just became an extension of that.
JV: What stations in Atlanta are you working with?
Jim: We have five stations here in Atlanta: WGST, which is our news/talk station in Atlanta; WPCH, Peach 94.9, which is our soft AC station; WKLS 96 Rock which is our AOR station; WMXV, Mix 105.7, which we put on the air in September of this year; and WILD 96.7, which is a rhythmic CHR that we also put on the air in September of this past year. We’re all located here on the 7th floor on historic Peachtree Road in Atlanta.
JV: Tell us about your production staff.
Jim: My staff is eight people strong. I have some people who have graced the pages of RAP Magazine in interview form and in audio form on The Cassette, just some of the best people in the business. I’m really lucky because I have people like Barbara Scott Sherry, who is the Production Director for Peach; Rick Van Slyke, who for years has been doing all of the fantastic 96 Rock production; and we recently brought Paul Bahr from San Diego. Paul is now working on imaging for 96 Rock and WILD. There are several other people in the department: Jim Sly who is our Production Director for WGST; Rob Scott, who acts as a copy director for us; and several other people we use in evening production shifts. Obviously, everybody can’t be here from nine to five, so our studios are going 24/7 almost all the time. It’s hard to find a studio sometimes.
JV: The “Production Directors” for the various stations, are they more or less overseeing the commercial side of that station?
Jim: Everybody has areas of concentration, and we really worked on sort of redesigning the model of what people do and what they’re assigned to do. Production is sort of the last bastion of post-consolidation reorganization. There are a lot of areas we really haven’t reorganized yet. We’re sort of halfway there because we really don’t know where things are going in post consolidation, but we’re trying to keep up with it in the production arena by bringing commercial production into a giant pool of five stations, giving people specific areas of concentration, but everybody shares in the giant pool. We’ve split Production Directors into two kinds, those who concentrate on commercials and those who concentrate on imaging; but people can and do do both.
JV: And they may do it for more than one station, correct?
Jim: That’s exactly right. But again, certain people have certain skills and attitudes that they bring to the table that allow them to do either AOR or soft AC better than the next guy, so we’ll put them in that area of concentration.
JV: How many studios are there for all these producers?
Jim: We currently have seven multi-track studios, and we are expanding to have nine multi-track studios. We do work, not only for Atlanta, but we’re also exporting a lot of work for a lot of other radio stations around the country. I also manage the Clear Channel Noise Site, which I think you’ve talked about in past interviews in RAP. It’s a production resource site for those on the Clear Channel wide area network. It’s primarily focused at the news/talks but also provides access for anybody on the wide area network to production pieces and elements and ideas that they can download and/or upload in a variety of formats. I’m just so incredibly lucky to have the staff that I have and the resources that I have at hand.
I travel around the country as directed by Tom Owens or Randy or Sean Compton at our corporate headquarters and go into various markets to take a look at the production departments in those markets and see what we can do to help them in terms of resources. I work a lot with the Program Directors and then with the Production Directors in those markets, and I certainly realize that the kinds of resources we have here aren’t available in a lot of the other markets out there. And that’s where Noise comes in very handy. They can use it to help take some of the load off individuals who end up getting burdened with trying to do everything for three or four or five stations in their markets.
JV: Is the Noise Site how you export audio to these other stations?
Jim: It’s one way. We have a number of ways because technology has not come around to a single way for us to get audio to all our radio stations. We’ve grown so fast as a company that there are still many people who aren’t even on our wide area network yet. But the Noise Site is one of the methods we use.
JV: The Prophet System, which you mentioned is in place there at your facility now, is that system on a network hooked up to other Prophet Systems in other markets?
Jim: That’s correct. It’s hooked up on our wide area network and we can export production carts as well as voice tracks for jocks to live assist in other markets, and we do quite a bit of that with Prophet.
JV: Is Prophet a standard system throughout the Clear Channel chain?
Jim: It has been adopted as the platform of choice for most of the Clear Channel chain. We are still in the process of deploying it in a number of markets. We’ve grown so fast that trying to get a large complicated computer system out to every one of our markets is daunting, and I work a lot with our CCIT, which is our department at Clear Channel that handles the deployment of those systems. We work not only on ways to make it user friendly as we deploy it, but I’m also working with them on developing new technologies that will help us in the future. And the future holds a lot of things that I think are going to make the life of a production person even better. Much as a digital editor lets you do a lot of things more efficiently, there are new technologies coming that will do the same thing in other areas of production.
JV: Your travels around the country to all these other production departments must have given you a pretty good overview of production facilities. What have you learned about some of the common shortcomings of these facilities?
Jim: Again, technology is a key issue, and because there is no standard platform, it makes it difficult many times to share resources across competing platforms. But I think technology will come around eventually, and no matter what kind of digital editor you’re using or what automation system you have installed, we’ll be able to accomplish a cross-platform talk of some kind. Once we get that happening, I think things will become even easier for us.
On the people level, which is far more difficult sometimes than the technical level, I see people who are challenged with doing more with the same resources they had when they were only one radio station. And to have to change and rethink what is expected of them and how they can accomplish it is the most difficult thing I see when I go market to market—people having to change. Change is by human nature very, very difficult.
JV: Is increasing the staff something that is typically done at these facilities once you’ve had a chance to visit them and make your recommendations?
Jim: Sometimes, but not necessarily. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking some very talented people who are there and reorganizing what it is that’s expected of them. And sometimes there are no changes necessary at all. I don’t necessarily go into a market to facilitate change. Many times, I’m going in just to see what additional resources we have as a company as large as Clear Channel that we can offer to that person to help him do that job more efficiently. I really work more as an advocate for the production department by my ability to interface with everybody from the programming level through the engineering level to management. And as that advocate, I’m putting focus on the guy who sits in that room that they don’t really understand sometimes, to put some light on them and to give them the things they may want or need. That’s generally what I’m doing.
JV: Getting back to the studios there in Atlanta, what multi-track system is the standard?
Jim: We’re using Audicy here. We actually have nine Audicys which are networked on a Novell network so that if a producer is working in one studio and for whatever reason has to get out of that room, he or she can simply stop working and go to another multi-track room and call up their session there and continue working. Projects can be stored on the server, and they can be stored on the internal hard drive of each Audicy as well. The network also enables us to take individual sessions and upload them to an FTP site or a secure site where they can be downloaded in another market. The Audicy version 3.0 can export entire productions as a single zipped file, which allows us to upload that production. We’ve done that in a number of cases where I’ve taken a full multi-track session and put it up on an FTP site for download anywhere around the country that has Audicy.
JV: That must be nice.
Jim: It is. It’s fantastic. As a matter of fact, just a few weeks ago, I was working in the studio at home, where I have an Audicy, and I hadn’t finished the session and needed to come in to work. So, I uploaded the session to the FTP site, and while it was uploading, I got into my car, drove down here to the station, and by the time I got here, it was finished uploading. Then I just downloaded it and began working on it.
JV: That’s neat stuff. I think everyone knew as consolidation progressed that this type of networking would be in place, and it sounds like it’s working well.
Jim: And the kinds of things that are possible now that don’t yet exist in reality amaze me all the time. We’re working on things that will allow the repetitive nature of our jobs to be minimized. Take a network commercial for example. If you think about the number of times it gets handled before it actually ends up on the air in any market, the time it takes to actually record the audio in, enter all the field information, and actually get that on the air. It’s the same information that’s being entered multiple times in each market, and then you combine that over the thousand plus radio stations of Clear Channel and you can see that the replication effort is just boggling. And this is unnecessary replication if technology would allow us to import things, just simple things like field information. Well, that technology exists now. But it’s like I said, production being the last bastion of post-consolidation reorganization, right now we’re just reorganizing the way we do things and putting new systems in place much as we have done with sales and with programming. But I think eventually we’ll get there with production as well. It’s a matter of rethinking the individual producer working on the individual radio station and thinking more globally, both vertically and horizontally, within any particular market.
JV: So you see a day when a commercial is dubbed once to a central server, and all the stations in the chain, a thousand plus stations if they’re running that spot, pick it up off the same server much like websites that download banner ads from DoubleClick’s servers.
Jim: Exactly. There is a technology that exists right now that allows the basic information to be imbedded in the header of the audio file — title, length, run dates, etc.— so that when it’s imported into the automation system, all that field information is all there and all filled out. I think we’re coming to that slowly. But if you think in terms of technology, it’s actually going incredibly fast, so fast that we can’t keep up with it as humans. The technology exists now, but we don’t have it in place. That’s a human equation, not a technical one.
JV: You mentioned a home studio with an Audicy as the centerpiece. When did you put that together?
Jim: It’s been something that I’ve been doing since I started doing production not so long ago. I put it together to allow me to work a longer workday. A lot of stuff that I do, in terms of projects for Clear Channel on a national level, are done here at the station but also at the home studio. I also did the Fox Sports Network launch from the home studio. I do all of the national Soft AC contesting materials. Much of that is produced at the home studio.
Obviously, budget is always the hurdle because my time is spent almost entirely for Clear Channel. I don’t really have a whole lot of time to spend on projects outside of Clear Channel, so trying to get outside clients is almost impossible for me. So, as I get the dollar, I try to think of what nice little toy I’d like next year. Right now, I have a Mackie console with the Audicy networked on a Novell network. I have RE-20 microphones and a Panasonic DAT. I use an Aphex Dominator headroom box and a Yamaha SPX 990 for effects, as well as the effects on the Audicy.
JV: Consolidation isn’t just about owning a bunch of radio stations. Clear Channel also owns a few production libraries.
Jim: As a company, we’ve purchased and made great investments in things like Premiere Networks, and the acquisition of AM/FM brought us great production things like the Brown Bag Library. There’s MJI and a lot of other things out there that we’ve acquired that are great resources for the production departments all around the country.
JV: Expanding sales forces generate increased commercial production. Would you say things are under control at your five stations in Atlanta with regards to handing the commercial production load?
Jim: I think we’ve done a good job of deploying that. As I say, we’ve reorganized the department as far as who was doing what. There are certainly times of greater stress than others, but all in all, by extending the production day in terms of daytime and nighttime shifts of production, I think that we’ve really accomplished the task at hand in support for the sales staff. Plus, we have a person dedicated to copyrighting. This gives the sales staff more time to spend on the street servicing their clients and getting smart radio marketing messages on the air.
And we have a national copy bank managed by Mike Redman out in San Diego. He was the guy who originated and worked up our copy bank for Clear Channel. It is a great resource. It’s only available if you are on the Clear Channel Wide Area Network. Think of how many times you’re sitting there Friday at four and just don’t have an idea for the next bar spot. It’s just great to be able to dip into that bank, and even if you don’t use the one that’s there, at least it offers an idea.
JV: This crazy election has to be offering some opportunities for your production people to have some fun.
Jim: We’ve been having a lot of fun, and I’ll tell you, it really ties into the sharing of resources around us because people who are great musicians and who are talents like Eric Chase produce things that were musical in nature and inspired other things, and we were able to share those through the Prophet System or through the Noise Site. Eric produced a parody of Rock in the USA called Vote in the F-L-A. We did a parody here of the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald called the Wreck of the Gore-Bush Election. And as we get into the Christmas season now, we’re producing some parodies of Christmas carols that relate to the election.
JV: You have a good grip on the effects of consolidation on radio station production departments. What else is down the road for us? What trends do you see?
Jim: The trend I see is that resources from those places that have greater access to them, the availability of those resources in other markets, will continue to grow. In other words, if somebody does fantastic CHR imaging, let’s take Eric Chase in Tampa, to make Eric’s production style available and his resources available on a wider scale makes a lot of sense. If Jim Cook in Atlanta makes a really good news/talk production, to make that available on a larger scale to those departments that don’t have it is a good idea. You’re going to see that continue to grow.
I think the role on a national level of certain producers will continue to grow. I think the way we deal with sales departments and how our jobs are defined from continuity and traffic all the way through to production will change as technology enables us to change it. Those are the kinds of things I see in the future.